Golden Door

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San Francisco International Film Festival

SAN FRANCISCO -- A series of static, poetic tableaux rather than a full-blown cinematic experience, screenwriter-director Emanuele Crialese's "Golden Door" (Nuovomondo) drains the drama and iconography out of an inherently dramatic, iconic story of the voyage of poor Italian immigrants from the old country to the promised land of America at the turn of the 20th century. In the end, Crialese's keen eye for beauty, painterly compositions, appealing whimsical sequences and solid performances from his cast aren't enough to compensate for an absence of narrative oomph that could have sustained interest over the course of the movie.

Although Miramax is behind the marketing, this wafer-thin fable will be lucky to attract even a small art-house audience. The film opens exclusively May 25 in New York and June 1 in Los Angeles.

The story opens with two barefoot men, the sad-eyed, laconic Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and his son Angelo (Francesco Casisa), scrambling up a fog-shrouded, rocky hillside in Sicily in search of guidance from their patron saint. This scene, which betrays neither time nor place, along with the sight of peasants traversing the countryside carrying gigantic vegetables, lends an aura of myth to the journey of Salvatore's family. The land of milk and honey is represented here, literally, with immigrants swimming in a sea of white liquid while Nina Simone sings on the soundtrack and piles of coins rain down from trees.

Later, in the cramped quarters aboard ship, Salvatore meets Lucy (an impassive Charlotte Gainsbourg), an enigmatic single woman with a past. She sparks the erotic imagination of the men -- Salvatore promptly proposes -- and arouses suspicion among the women.

A good portion of the film is set within the confines of Ellis Island, where the new arrivals run a humiliating gantlet of invasive physical examinations and pseudo-scientific aptitude tests with a strong whiff of eugenics. Those deemed unfit are promptly deported. Aurora Qattrocchi is wonderful as the proud Fortunata, the indomitable, deeply superstitious matriarch, who knows b.s. when she sees it and doesn't hesitate to point it out. The film could have used more of her fire.

Agnes Godard, responsible for the superb, lyrical cinematography in Claire Denis' "Beau Travail," provides surreal, dreamlike imagery, fog being a prominent metaphor. Unfortunately, Crialese has a weakness for never-ending takes and doesn't develop characters beyond a few broad strokes: Salvatore is simple and kind, and the deaf-mute, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo, whose slouch, floppy hat and blondish curls are reminiscent of Harpo Marx), is smarter than he seems.

The result is an unsatisfying film that makes it difficult to understand what should be at the heart of any immigrant saga: Why these people risked everything and departed for the unknown. Crialese even deprives us and them of a glimpse of Lady Liberty.

GOLDEN DOOR
Miramax Films
Alexandre Mallet-Guy and Fabrizio Mosca present a Memento Films/Titti Films/Respiro production with Arte France Cinema
Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Emanuele Crialese
Producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Fabrizio Mosca, Emanuele Crialese
Executive producer: Bernard Bouix, Tommaso Calevi
Director of photography: Agnes Godard
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Music: Antonio Castrignano
Costume designer: Mariano Tufano
Editor: Maryline Monthieux
Cast:
Lucy: Charlotte Gainsbourg
Salvatore Mancuso: Vincenzo Amato
Fortunata Mancuso: Aurora Quattrocchi
Angelo Mancuso: Francesco Casisa
Pietro Mancuso: Filippo Pucillo
Don Luigi
Vincent Schiavelli
Running time -- 118 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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